by DARYL BROWNE
The anticipation of the Wild West set and costumes was the buzz prior to the downbeat of Portland Opera’s The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti. Donizetti is a constant to Portland Opera audiences over the company’s 50 years – sixteen productions of five different operas. This is Elixir’s fourth appearance. Stick with the original formula of the magic Elixir? Not this time around; this production, inspired by James de Blasis “sagebrush” setting at Cincinnati Opera in 1968, was re-imagined by Ned Canty, who directs here as well, with set designed locally by Curt Enderle. Change can also be exciting, reinvigorating. Portland Opera certainly hopes so — in several ways.
In Saturday night’s performance at Portland’s relatively intimate Newmark Theatre, the curtain rose to a vibrant set, an energetic cowgirl (Adina) and a disarming rube (Nemorino) who bumbles on stage and immediately falls in love with said cowgirl. From that moment on, in acting and singing, these two artists took charge of each scene in which they appeared.
It is primarily their story. He desperately in love with she. She not convinced. He believes his “answer” lies in a love potion. She becomes enamored of another. End of Act I.
Katrina Galka, a Portland Opera resident artist, portrayed Adina’s conflicted emotions beautifully. She sang dead-on pitch center throughout the register and seemed to waver slightly only when her shimmering vibrato asserted itself. Her melismatic exactitude — no tempo allowances for her – was satisfying.
Twisting his face, his hat, his feet, always in motion but never letting it interfere with his ringingly accurate singing, former resident artist (2012-13) Matthew Grills made the audience love him … no, pity him… no, want to turn him over its knee, doggone-it. General George Custer lookalike Sergeant Belcore (baritone Alexander Elliott) was the perfect narcissist, egotistical balance for poor Nemorino. His character was held in check and sometimes Elliott’s voice yearned to be released. He and Galka will be returning to Portland Opera as resident artists next season.
Steven Condy, singing the bass/baritone role of Dr. Dulcamara, counts this role as one of his specialities. He embodied it on Saturday night. He was a lovable bamboozler, selling “cures” and “remedies” for all of life’s ills. There’s a never-ending market for that. In addition to terrific comedic timing and resonant singing, he seemed somehow to elevate and encourage his youthful stage mates, particularly in his several duets.
Donizetti’s duets in this opera are gems. The duet libretti carried some of the most amusing texts, providing impetus to the drama, transition and personality revelations: their staging and direction was perfection. Body positioning, gesture, facial reaction, were all choreographed perfectly with Donizetti’s musical “dialogue,” as for example in “Ecco il magico liquore/Obbligato” (“Here then is the Magic Elixir/Thank You”) when Nemorino and Dulcamara first meet.
Onward to Act II and Adina’s pre-wedding party and one of the most “what in the Sam Hill” pieces of the opera. Dr. Dulcamara invites Adina to sing a duet with him; he’ll play the role of a senator and she a sweet lovely young thing. It is included perhaps to allow the intermission champagne to wear off, or perhaps to show Dulcamara’s “bittersweet” role in life as a lonely traveling salesman. It serves only to lead us to the demonstrations and realizations of love in some well crafted pieces: the enlistment duet “Venti Scudi” (“Twenty ‘Bucks’) of Belcore and Nemorino and Adina’s enlightenment about the breadth of Nemorino’s devotion “Quanto Amore” (“Much Love”). And then follows Nemorino’s famous aria.
Donizetti could written “Una furtive lagrima” (“A furtive tear”) as a sad song about unrequited love. He could have made it a joyous song about Adina finally coming around to him. Smart composer: he made it both. He knows she loves him. “What more searching need [he] do.” The notably succulent bassoon introduction led the way for Grills to pull the audience in, include us in his rapture. Boy howdy did he do it well.
Maestro Nicholas Fox held tight rein on a sensitive orchestra, keeping singers and instruments in sync through the most rapid passages. Monitors on both sides of the stage helped tremendously though being quite obvious to the audience. Wanting tuning and more rhythmic care, however, the overture played more like a warm-up exercise than the beginning of the opera.
One of the stars of this production was the Newmark Theatre and what it offered to performers, designers and audience. Text and musical line floated easily into the hall and dynamics and stylistic nuance were never forced. The chorus, quite small at six men and see women, was well blended and produced a solid sound without yelling. The set, while compact and unchanged throughout, had amusing period distractions and some local color (M & F Emporium, after the city’s old Meier & Frank store) and owing to details of perspective, such as mountainous background, gave the illusion of depth and height.
The Newmark enables an intimacy, a relationship. Elixir is a melodrama giocoso (comic opera) with a heavy dose of buffo (clown). The Newmark throws the laughter back onto the stage and feeds the actors. And, fine actors all, they didn’t just pause to get the laugh, they also paused with the laugh. It was obvious and infectious.
Next year, Newmark and Portland Opera will expand their relationship – more of a live-in than the occasional overnight. It’s a change. The whole summer ‘festival format’ to which Portland Opera is moving is a change. It’s part of a strategy to keep this company going strong. It might even be the magic formula.
Portland Opera’s The Elixir of Love closes August 1. Tickets are available online.
Daryl Browne began her music career as a flutist, pianist and music theorist. She completed her elementary 32-year classroom and music teaching career and now makes music around the Northwest.
Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!